Background About Our Work in Mongolia

About Mongolia

Mongolia is a landlocked country in east-central Asia. In area, it is 19th largest country in the world, with a population of 2.9 million inhabitants. Politically, Mongolia is a parliamentary republic.

For most of its area, Mongolia possesses a highly continental, semi-arid to arid climate, characterized by low precipitation and therefore low water availability. Perennial rivers are found in the northern part of the country, but are lacking in the dry southern part. River runoff in the summer is variable and depends on the amount of rainfall in the summer months with contribution from the ice and snow collected in the mountains during the winter season. Lakes in Mongolia store approximately 75 percent of the total fresh water resources, with Lake Khuvsgul alone storing 75 percent of the total water volume in these lakes. From a water resources management perspective, Mongolia is divided into 29 Water Basins.

Water Challenges

As the economy transitions from agrarian to urbanized and mining driven, the country’s limited and unevenly distributed water resources are fast becoming a point of stress and conflict. Different communities’ have competing water interests – water is crucial not only for daily consumption by the people and for herders to maintain their livestock, but also as an essential resource for industries such as the mining sector. Currently, the agricultural sector is the largest water user in Mongolia, with irrigation accounting for 30 percent and livestock for 23.5 percent of the total water demand. Mining accounts for 12.7 percent of the water demand, but is likely to become the major water user in the future. The Mongolian economy has been seeing a robust growth rate spurred largely by the mining sector and the reserves in the Gobi desert. Water consumption is highest in the Tuul and Orkhon water basins, accounting for 27.6 percent and 13.5 percent of total water use in Mongolia, respectively.

While Mongolia appears to have enough water to meet the needs of its cities, industries and farms, it faces a complicated water future. Extremes in seasonal runoff, local stress and chronic deficits threaten economic development in key sectors. Rainfall varies widely across regions, leading to dangerously high groundwater dependence. The steppes make cross-country water conveyance difficult and costly. Climate change multiplies stress, with an 18% increase in heavy rainfall in humid areas and shrinking ice cover elsewhere. Groundwater is no longer recharging and flows are deteriorating in the Khurkh and Onon Rivers. The capital city, Ulaanbaatar, runs short during winter months and suffers from pollution. Ulaanbaatar’s future water projections shows water demand will exceed the water supply by 2021. In the mining intensive and water starved Gobi desert, projections show that expected water demand could exceed available supply (in the high water demand scenario) before 2030, while urban water supplies and rural food production security are also becoming vulnerable. Even as water supplies are shrinking, water demand is expected to triple in the coming two decades.